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Mindfulness has become a buzzword, and for good reason. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to help with psychological and physical health. It plays a central role in several effective therapies like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Apps such as Calm and Headspace lead a growing mindfulness industry which is valued at over 1.2 billion dollars.
The current mindfulness trend in the Western world has its roots in Eastern religions. The concept was popularized in the fields of psychology and medicine by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was trained by Zen Buddhist teachers. In order to widen the appeal to the broader culture, Kabat-Zinn stripped mindfulness from its religious roots, focusing instead on the underlying psychological mechanisms. As defined by Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” The question for the Jewish consumer becomes how do these now-secularized concepts fit within a Torah worldview?
For those steeped in the works of the Hasidic and Mussar masters, the concept of mindfulness is not new. This becomes clear in Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Epstein’s book “Living in the Presence: A Jewish Mindfulness Guide for Everyday Life,“ where deeply insightful Torah teachings revolving around many important mindfulness techniques are elucidated. Yet, despite many of the overlaps, it is important to highlight potential points of distinction between a Jewish mindfulness practice and secular or Eastern mindfulness practices. One such distinction is apparent in the beginning of Parshat Vayeishev.
After years of exile filled with painstaking labor, emotional distress, and physical pain, Yaakov finally returned home – “Now Yaakov was settled in the land where his father had sojourned.” The first Hebrew word of the Parsha is “Vayeishev,” settled. Rashi, elaborating on a Midrash, sees within this word not just a physical description of location, but a longing for serenity (“shalva”). God does not respond to this mindset with affinity. The next world is for reward and relaxing, not this world. The moment Yaakov thought he could finally experience tranquility, the incredibly painful challenge of the loss of Yosef begins to unfold.
Why was Yaakov’s yearning for peace and calm met with such resistance? In the responses of the commentaries to this question we find a fundamental distinction between a Jewish mindfulness approach and one rooted in secular or Eastern concepts. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz contends that the purpose of this world is not serenity, but of spiritual growth borne out by challenges. Sefat Emet suggests similarly, that the goal of life is to constantly toil for the sake of God, continually striving for perfection. The mentality of one who wants to dwell in peace, writes the Ishbitzer, usually leads to an avoidance of challenging situations, resulting in complacency stemming from fear.
The upshot of these responses is that tranquility and peace of mind can never be goals themselves within Judaism. As Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb so eloquently puts it: “The Torah’s ideal is a life of action and involvement in worldly affairs. The Torah rejects the attitude of detachment and passivity, which is implicit in the teachings of Eastern religions. The Torah cannot envision the good life if that life is without challenge. Achievement of inner peace is not the ultimate value, especially not if it results in withdrawal from responsible action within society.”
One of the closest religious terminologies that relates to mindfulness is yishuv hada’at, often misunderstood as “peace of mind.” Rabbi Dr. Epstein suggests that yishuv hada’at does not mean peace of mind, but the act of “settling into (unifying with) present moment awareness.” “In cultivating yishuv hada’at” he writes, “we do not aim like some Eastern religions… to remove ourselves from whatever predicament, situation, or condition in which we find ourselves. Rather our goal is to enter fully into whatever is occurring in our lives and meet it with full presence.”
This was Yaakov’s mistake. This world is for resilience and growth, not peace of mind, serenity, or tranquility. Jewish mindfulness isn’t about detaching from the problems of this world, but actively meeting those difficulties by being cognitively and emotionally engaged in that moment. By so doing, we will be better prepared to confront and grow from challenges, improve ourselves and actively work towards the betterment of society.